What Just Happened: Burak Arikan Maps Power Structures, Financial Flows, and Networks of Influence

Burak Arikan is a New York-based artist who explores emerging political economies of data, decentralized infrastructures, and blockchain technology. He investigates societal issues and develops his findings into abstract machinery, which generates network maps and algorithmic interfaces, results in performances, and procreates predictions to render inherent power relationships visible and discussable. Arikan’s software, prints, installations, and performances have been featured in numerous exhibitions internationally; he is also the founder of Graph Commons, a collaborative platform for mapping, analyzing, and publishing data networks.


Greg J. Smith

What just happened? In late April, New York-based artist Burak Arikan revealed his ‘genesis’ NFT project Social Contracts. Drawing on two decades mapping networks and experimenting with markets, it was not just another generative art project, but a dynamic representation of the ephemeral NFT ecosystem; each purchaser received a real-time network map of their NFT collection on the Ethereum blockchain. The project marks a singular entry into the blockchain art space and a ‘full circle’ moment for Arikan, both showcasing his Graph Commons network mapping platform, and building on his early works visualizing financial flows.

Q: You have a long practice of making works that have nothing to do with the blockchain so what prompted you to make what is ostensibly an NFT collector network visualization tool?
A: My previous work with distributed systems and exploring money as a creative medium laid the foundation for my interest in blockchains. Back in 2005 at the MIT Media Lab, I was involved in developing OPENSTUDIO, an online marketplace that introduced economics into the digital art world. It was a community-based platform that empowered participants to create, exchange, and sell artwork using a virtual currency and innovative tools. It had features such as exchanging SVGs with drawing history allowing async collective creation, on-demand rendering of art customized for the viewing device, promiserver contracts for art commissions, and distributed sensor-actuator system for composing interconnected electronic artworks. Platform members created work in a variety of styles, curated shows, became collectors, built museums, formed collaboration rings, and developed taxonomies. Looking back, OPENSTUDIO was ahead of its time and resembled an NFT marketplace.

After releasing OPENSTUDIO, I acted as an ad-hoc economist, analyzing economic activity and suggesting improvements to the platform. Also as an extension, I developed Open I/O (2006), a peer-to-peer network system for composing interconnected electronic artworks. These experiences influenced me to incorporate network science and mechanism design methods into my art, showcased in my subsequent projects like Meta-Markets (2007-09) and MyPocket (2008).

As an artist, I was fascinated by the transformative potential of blockchains and their societal impact. When NFTs gained prominence, I saw an opportunity to explore its implications. Rather than simply selling my artwork as NFTs, I wanted to create a piece that enables examining the NFT ecosystem itself. This led me to develop Social Contracts (2023).
“When NFTs gained prominence, I saw an opportunity to explore their implications. Rather than simply selling my artwork as NFTs, I wanted to create a piece that enables examining the NFT ecosystem itself.”
Q: What feedback have you received from Social Contracts token purchasers and the broader crypto community?
A: One response that resonated well with the project is the idea that NFTs are ‘social graphs.’ This succinctly captures the essence of Social Contracts NFTs, as they map their collectors’ collections and their shared connections with other collectors. These collection graphs reach to thousands of accounts and NFTs and their shared connections, emphasizing the inherent social aspect of NFTs, and predict future acquisitions for their owners.

During a 5-day open edition minting period, 899 unique NFTs were generated specifically for each minting account. Minters have been exploring their interactive graphs, discovering accounts with similar tastes, some of whom might be their friends and colleagues, while others could be newfound connections. People also have been checking each other’s collection graphs to uncover interesting patterns, new NFTs, artist affiliations, and similarities between collectors.

Social Contracts NFTs evolve with each transfer of ownership, merging the new owner’s data with the existing one. This means that even those who missed the initial minting can acquire NFTs from the secondary market and explore their collection graphs, always with the context of the previous owner’s graph. Furthermore, certain groups of friends have developed a practice of passing a single NFT among themselves, forming interconnected circles that visually connect and map their collections together.
Hot Wallets

Despite the fact everything is recorded on public ledgers crypto is notoriously illegible to outsiders; with Social Contracts, Arikan reveals the invisible networks binding insiders. Released through the JPG curatorial platform in spring 2023, 899 collectors purchased the NFT, which visualizes their (wallet’s) nearest neighbours on the Ethereum blockchain. Mapped are mutually owned NFTs, collectors with similar holdings, and predictions of future purchases based on past activity. The very meta NFT was received with curiosity by leading collectors, who recognized its technical innovation and embedded institutional critique. “I feel the artist-collector-artwork formations that emerge are a lucid example of McKenzie Wark’s theory that ‘art is a derivative,’ a portfolio of simulation values,” says Arikan of his project.

Q: As someone who has been thinking about peer-to-peer networks and financialization for a long time, what are your thoughts—both optimistic and pessimistic—about what is going on in decentralized finance right now?
A: Cryptocurrency and decentralized finance are the primary areas of application for decentralized blockchain networks. These networks provide a verifiable database that is resistant to tampering, where anyone can read and write without permission. They offer the potential for large scale coordination systems independent of conventional institutions, marking a significant development in our history.

However, the promise of an open decentralized internet has been challenged by performance, usability, and energy efficiency problems of the first generation crypto-networks Bitcoin and early Ethereum. While Ethereum’s Layer 2 solutions solved the performance issues to a certain degree, a new generation of projects Cosmos, Polkadot, and Avalanche released extraordinary infrastructures. They aim to scale horizontally with an asynchronous heterogeneous network model, where application-specific blockchains co-exist and interoperate with one another when needed. They aim to create an ‘internet of blockchains’ to reach a scale that can accommodate not just hundreds of thousands (as it is today), but millions of daily active users—realizing the user-owned and controlled Web3 vision. I published my research into these networks in “A Comparison of Heterogeneous Blockchain Networks,” a report I wrote last year.

The final major hurdle for widespread blockchain adoption is privacy. It is crucial to prevent big tech companies and states from tracking and predicting our social, economic, and political activities, as this could continue to perpetuate the concentration of power in the hands of a few: Social Contracts demonstrated how easy it is to expose such information. Fortunately, advancements in technologies like zero-knowledge proofs and multi-party computation hold the potential to enable privacy-preserving blockchains as we progress forward.
“My art doesn’t fit neatly into categories like ‘visual generative art’ or ‘AI art.’ Instead, my works are machine-readable systems that offer multiple façades and interfaces for engagement.”
Q: Network visualization has been a constant in your practice over the years. Could you talk a little about what you aim to surface when you represent a network and your aesthetic strategy when doing so? Also, what and who are your influences?
A: Most of my work revolves around exposing the underlying power structures within complex networks, challenging the notion that these networks are flat, equal, or democratic. My art pieces go beyond mere visuals; they are systems that integrate software, data, and networks. Through extensive research and connecting seemingly unrelated elements, I generate new data that fuels these works. They don’t fit neatly into categories like ‘visual generative art’ or ‘AI art.’ Instead, they’re machine-readable systems that offer multiple façades and interfaces for engagement. Some of them are living artworks, constantly evolving in tandem with their surrounding ecosystems. I choose to work this way because only then I can raise questions relevant to our times. These projects prompt inquiries into topics such as data asymmetries, covert power dynamics between corporations and states, the value of user labour on social platforms, NFTs as social graphs, and verifiable artist collaborations.

I draw inspiration from a range of theories in cybernetics, media, computation, biology, urbanism, anthropology, economy, and political philosophy. I also find influence in artists who have blended art and activism and developed institutional critique such as Hans Haacke, Vito Acconci, Andrea Fraser, Abbie Hoffman. Additionally artist communities that led to paradigm shifts in the definition of art such as Fluxus, Situationist International, net.art, and most recently artists using blockchains as a creative medium.

Q: In a recent chat we had, you talked about how you saw your work with visualization aligning with feminist notions of maintenance work. Could you expand on this for our readers?
A: In 2008, I visited MoMA PS1 for this show “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” a groundbreaking showcase of international feminist art from the 1970s. One artwork that stood out to me was Mierle Laderman UkelesHartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance (1973), in which Ukeles cleaned the Wadsworth Atheneum museum as a form of performance art, shedding light on the unnoticed labour. This experience inspired me to continue creating art that requires ongoing maintenance and care. My works, such as Social Contracts, MyPocket, and Meta-Markets, are dynamic and evolve with their surrounding ecosystems. Behind the scenes, there is a significant amount of invisible and immaterial labour involved, including system monitoring, bug fixing, and upgrades. This labour, though often unseen, is an integral part of the artwork.

The concept of invisible labour is intertwined in my project Meta-Markets (2007-09), where I explored the immaterial value of users for social media platforms by developing and maintaining a social platform myself. Meta-Markets was an experimental stock market for social media profiles, where you could IPO shares of your Facebook profile in a Dutch auction and trade shares of profiles using a virtual currency. The goal was to reveal the worth of users within a social media platform and explore how they could benefit from the value they generate. Interestingly, I developed these experimental works around the same time Bitcoin was emerging, unaware of its existence at the time.
“Behind the scenes, there is a significant amount of invisible and immaterial labour involved, including system monitoring, bug fixing, and upgrades. This labour, though often unseen, is an integral part of my artworks.”
Q: Finally, you’ve turned the visualization toolkit you’ve developed over the years into the Graph Commons commercial platform. Would you talk a little about what it’s like wearing ‘artist’ and ‘entrepreneur’ hats at the same time?
A: After teaching network mapping and analysis to artists, activists, and institutions around the world, I recognized the need for easy-to-use and web-based accessible network science tools. This led me to develop Graph Commons, a collaborative platform for mapping, analyzing, and sharing data-networks. Its purpose is to democratize the use of network science methods, empowering non-experts and organizations to leverage these tools in their work.

Ensuring the platform’s financial sustainability posed a significant challenge that required considerable time and attention. Initially, I relied on grants and consulting engagements to support a small team for platform development. Subsequently, we introduced paid plans for advanced usage while keeping free plans available for learning and creating public graphs. Through workshops and online discussions, we cultivated a community of network-thinking individuals and organizations. In 2019, I was awarded with a fellowship from Ashoka as a social entrepreneur, which helped transform the platform into a self-sustaining organization.

During this period, I dedicated myself to the growth of Graph Commons, temporarily setting aside new artistic pursuits (while still exhibiting my existing works). However, fueled by a burgeoning interest in blockchains and the changing economic, political, and technological landscape in the world, I have recently generated new ideas and reignited my artistic endeavors. This inspiration yielded Social Contracts and Prompts: Exquisite Corpse (2023), a collaborative, socially transmissible NFT, that we can perhaps talk about in a future conversation.
What Just Happened
In this serial interview format, HOLO checks in with artists, designers, curators, and researchers to get the lowdown on a timely topic—be it a new project, exhibition, or current event.

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Greg J. Smith

A writer and cultural worker based in Hamilton, Canada, Greg is an editor for HOLO and his writing has appeared in publications including Creative Applications Network, Musicworks, and Back Office. He is also a PhD candidate within the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, where he is researching the emergence of the programmable drum machine in the early 1980s.

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